In 2007, Austin Whitney graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA. A star student by any measure, he seemed destined for a bright future—but on July 21, he made the very bad decision to get behind the wheel of his car after having a few drinks.
Whitney lost control of his vehicle and hit a tree, almost killing himself and best friend. In the accident, Whitney's back was broken and his spinal cord was instantly severed, paralyzing him from the waist down.
During his long and difficult recovery, Whitney said he was initially consumed by self-hatred before regaining his determination. "I realized I had two choices: I could live in the past and be filled with self pity ... [or] face the adversity in my life, not let this cover my goals and dreams and aspirations."
Ten days after being released from the hospital, Whitney began his college classes. Last Saturday, he graduated with honors from the University of California at Berkeley—and he walked to accept his diploma.
Thanks to an "exoskeleton" called BLEEX—the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton—Whitney was able to not only rise to his feet at the commencement ceremony, but also walk across the stage. The exoskeleton is a type of wearable robotic created by a team of UC Berkeley engineers, which connects to the person's legs and uses its own power source to assist their movements.
Whitney described the moment of walking in front of 15,000 cheering people:
When I stood up and I took the first few steps ... I felt a rush of memories. Everything from the worst moments of my life -- the car accident, realizing I wouldn't walk again -- and then the best moments of my life -- being accepted to Berkeley -- and realizing, wow, I'm really here. I really was able to graduate in four years and wow, I'm really here walking, doing something I thought was 'impossible.' I'm much more hesitant to use that word ever again.
While Whitney plans to attend law school this fall, he's first going to work full-time in the UC lab helping the research team. In addition to his work on the exoskeleton project, he'll be continuing to speak to high school students across the country about drinking and driving. As a preventative speaker, Whitney's reached out to over 40,000 students and counting.
I cannot begin to imagine the strength it's taken for this young man to to rise above the challenges he's faced in the last few years. If anyone's worked hard for a second chance, it sure seems like Austin Whitney has.
Image via Flickr/gadgetdude
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